House under construction

Housing Perspectives

Research, trends, and perspective from the Harvard Joint Center for Housing Studies

Understanding the Work of Community-Based Organizations in Historically Black Communities

Community-based organizations (CBOs) that serve neighborhoods uniquely affected by the nation’s long history of institutional housing discrimination are at the forefront of efforts to mitigate that history’s effects and foster greater equity. However, little is known about how that history has shaped the work done by these groups or the unique challenges they have faced in doing it.

In “From Redlining to Resilience: How Residential Segregation Molded the Work of Community-Based Organizations in Historically Black Communities,” a new paper jointly published by the Center and NeighborWorks America, I describe research on both questions that I conducted last summer as a Gramlich Fellow in Community and Economic Development. I investigated the extent to which redlining and other forms of institutional discrimination influenced the mission, values, and strategies of organizations focused on community development that work in historically segregated neighborhoods. One important component was examining how funders have tended to view this work, as well as how the racial reckoning of 2020 impacted funders’ relationships with these groups.

To answer these questions, I reviewed the existing literature and conducted 12 interviews with leaders of seven notable community-based organizations from around the country operating in areas with histories of housing discrimination, including several that operate in historically redlined neighborhoods. While each group’s history and activities are unique, the groups also had much in common. Most notably:

Many organizations originally emerged as a result of community advocates and residents responding to a neighborhood shock.

For example, the Famicos Foundation in Cleveland was founded in the 1960s by a resident in the wake of the Hough Riots, a multi-day period of civil unrest that occurred as a result of racial discrimination and that destroyed much of the neighborhood. In the aftermath, the Famicos Foundation has worked to meet the needs of the abandoned and resource-limited community.

Service delivery, particularly delivery of social services, is a critical pathway to mitigate disparities left unresolved by housing development.

The Codman Square Neighborhood Development Corporation (CSNDC), which operates in part of Dorchester in Boston, offers a host of services that aim to address the history of public-sector disinvestment and neglect in and near Codman Square. These services include financial fitness and homeownership counseling courses, workforce development training programs for returning citizens, leadership training for residents of CSNDC’s properties, an urban farm that provides fresh produce for food-insecure residents, and a green infrastructure certification program.

For many organizations, inhibiting gentrification, maintaining affordability, and allowing long-time residents to remain in place is key.

Over the past several decades, the Fifth Avenue Committee (FAC), which serves Brooklyn’s Park Slope neighborhood, has changed the focus of its work as the neighborhood has shifted from a predominately working-class immigrant community to one of the highest-income neighborhoods in New York City. FAC now helps long-time renters in danger of losing their homes in a variety of ways, including offering education programs about tenant rights, providing one-on-one counseling for tenants, helping at-risk tenants apply for rental subsidies, supporting efforts to organize tenant advocacy groups within buildings, and, when necessary, referring tenants to legal clinics.

For many organizations, recognizing the history of the neighborhood and preserving its original character is achieved through homeownership and rehabilitation projects.

For example, the Fifth Ward Community Redevelopment Corporation aims to preserve the legacy of Houston’s Fifth Ward, which has been a bedrock of Black culture and community in Texas since it was settled by formerly enslaved families in the nineteenth century. The group’s notable activities include restoring historic landmarks and operating a homeownership counseling program to help long-term residents purchase their homes.

My discussions with leaders of these CBOs about their experiences with funders also indicated broad similarities. Most notably, the leaders believe that funders often do not take the time to understand how a neighborhood’s history influences the work done by its CBOs. Leaders noted that the metrics funders use to evaluate grant proposals often focus extensively on real estate development, which penalizes them for prioritizing the social services needed to address historic injustices and practices. Many of the leaders who are Black also reported having to work harder to convince funders that they are effective and skilled managers.

These findings illustrate a fundamental theme that emerged in this research, with implications for policymakers, NeighborWorks America, and other funders: it is critical for funders to understand and appreciate the history of community-based organizations and the places where they are located. Each organization operates in a very specific and pertinent historical context that significantly influences how its leaders conceptualize neighborhood change and how they seek to achieve it. Existing funding approaches are inadequate if funders do not appreciate the range of activities organizations carry out in their efforts to promote equity. Moving forward, the leaders of these CBOs hope that funders will defer to the expertise of community-based leaders who have both personal and professional understanding of the opportunities and challenges in their neighborhoods and, in doing so, make investments capable of facilitating transformative change.